At least twice in my comments on Syria over the past several months I have dismissed the possibility that the Syrian opposition could summon the ability to storm the Assad regime’s “palace” and overthrow the regime by direct force. I have argued instead that the pressure mounted by the opposition was far more likely to stimulate some kind of coup that would get rid of the Assads and open the way for some sort of transitional arrangement, whether smooth or, far more likely, very messy. After the events of the past few days, and particularly yesterday’s decapitation of the regime’s core national security personnel, my certainty has diminished considerably.
One never really knows how brittle a regime is until it is tested by fire and iron. Most authoritarian police states, Arab and otherwise, are far less formidable than they seem, and indeed, the aura of their invincibility is a key asset in the longevity of such regimes that frequently makes up for their lack of genuine resilience and resolve. That, of course, is why such regimes are so careful about preserving their images, and also why they seem in retrospect to decay so quickly. That was certainly true of most of the communist satellite regimes in Eastern Europe, spectacularly so in the case of Ceauşescu’s Romania and very much the case, too, in the dissolution of the USSR itself. Yet we are continually surprised when this happens, even though we should know better.
No doubt there are all sorts of psychological reasons for the repetition of the embarrassing distance between our expectations and our experience of onrushing political reality in violent or revolutionary circumstances. I am not a psychologist, so I will spare you my pontifications on the matter. I will merely remind you of a marvelous remark by the late John Kenneth Galbraith who, writing about the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929, captured this psychological dynamic perfectly with the remark: “The end had come, but it was not yet in sight.”
The events of the past few days seem, if we can believe press accounts (no, I’m not trying to be funny), to have persuaded many governments, not least our own, that the end of the Assad regime could well be very close at hand. Several commentators have urged the Administration to accelerate its planning for the aftermath of Assad’s fall. One hopes that this planning has been going on for some time anyway, journalistic prodding or not, but just as hope is not a policy, neither can one take for granted the timeliness, coherence or adequacy of planning in the U.S. government. (And you are hearing this from someone who used to be a member of the Policy Planning staff in the Department of State.) Nevertheless, looking at press accounts and the better, more realistic expressions of punditry, it is possible to come up with a short list of things we definitely need to do.
The most prolific topic that has been discussed concerns Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. Not only has the U.S. government been thinking and planning about those weapons within its own confines, it has apparently been discussing the matter with other countries—Israel for one, which National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon visited this past weekend, and presumably Turkey for another. The fear, as many have expressed it, is that the regime might use these weapons on the opposition, not entirely unlike the way that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his Kurdish opposition in the infamous Anfal campaign. That would be gruesome, but it would not really impinge on American national security interests except in an aesthetic sense. I think the real concern is that such weapons could fall into the hands of some extremely nasty and anti-American people. I hope that’s the real concern, anyway. It clearly is a concern and I hope we are addressing it effectively and realistically.
There has also been much expression about protecting minorities in Syria should the regime collapse, and specifically these concerns focus on the Alawi community. How exactly one prevents massive revenge killings in the absence of a substantial number of boots on the ground, I don’t know. In theory, we and others can extract any number of promises from members of the opposition, and in practice those promises are likely to end up meaning absolutely nothing. In international relations as well and many other facets of life, you have to pay to play. If you are not willing to invest real assets in a situation, you have no right to expect any significant influence over outcomes.
That is why, now many, many months ago, I made the point that the failure of the Obama Administration to engage itself in the Syria crisis would eventually leave it without much leverage to influence the outcome. (For those unaware of my previous commentary on this subject, let me immediately state that I never proposed American boots on the ground in Syria, so save your indignant wrath for someone else. There are other ways to lead than with bayonets.) That is why Administration partisans who are now getting ready to claim that the Administration’s standoffish attitude paid off handsomely, since Assad will fall and we will not have had to pay a great price to achieve that, are, in the vernacular, full of beans.
We are not spectators here. It is not enough to have the honor of cheering the downfall of a heinous and murderous regime. That is not the definition of a successful policy; that’s a way of thinking that belongs in the theater. What is happening in Syria, and what will happen if Assad should fall, affects American equities with respect to Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, the Palestinians, and arguably others besides. Limiting our thinking and our analyses and our planning to what will happen inside Syria, and focusing those limits on humanitarian and legalistic grounds, is very ill considered. It would represent an abdication of statecraft.
That is why some elements of planning not often mentioned in the press and among pundits turn out to be quite important. Only a few commentators I have seen have stressed the importance of returning Syrian refugees, mainly now in Turkey and Jordan, back to their homes as rapidly and as smoothly as possible. That is important more for political reasons in Turkey, and for economic reasons in Jordan, but it is important in both countries all the same.
Some planning is diplomatic in nature and really doesn’t have much to do with Syria as such. Yesterday, Russia and China both vetoed a proposed UN resolution calling for sanctions against the Syrian regime. That resolution was based on a Chapter 7 premise—Chapter 7 meaning that a resolution could in theory involve the use of force as necessary. Both the American and the British (and even the French) representatives to the Security Council lambasted the Russians, in particular, for an inexcusable and irresponsible act.
But this is just diplomatic theatrics. We have been pondering for some time now whether to introduce this kind of resolution just to force the Russians to veto it, as we certainly knew they would (especially if it was a Chapter 7 item). In the past as regards the Syria crisis we and others have kowtowed to the Russians in hopes that ultimately they would be useful in the Assad regime’s endgame. In giving the Administration the benefit of the doubt, I have even been able to devise a decent reason for this approach, but, clearly, the accumulating embarrassments attending this policy have become a political liability both for the President and for the Secretary of State’s legacy. Hence, I think, the decision to force the Russians to do what we knew they would do.
Susan Rice’s declamation that Russian worries about the actual use of Western force in Syria are nonsense entitles her, perhaps, to a nomination for best supporting actress in this year’s Oscar nominations. Her comment misses the point entirely, and of course she knows it: The Russians realize that we are not going to intervene militarily, certainly not now, but they can’t allow another Chapter 7 resolution after spending so much time accusing NATO of having abused the privilege of a Chapter 7 resolution on Libya. And if they were to shift positions now into something that looks like an anti-Assad posture, they would be accused at home of kowtowing to the United States. In Russian politics these days, that’s even worse than Americans being accused of excessive deference toward Moscow.
So does the Russian veto harm Russia’s image in the Sunni Arab world? Yes, it does so at least marginally. In some respects, then, should our maneuver be considered a diplomatic success? Perhaps. But these episodes cannot be scored on an individual basis. They have to be seen as part of a continuum. The real calculation here is whether the embarrassment we caused the Russians is worth the trouble they might give us the next time we need their support or cooperation in some far-flung place. I understand the politics of this, and I understand the satisfaction of shoving the Russians into an awkward corner. But I still think, all else equal, this was a shortsighted thing to do.
You can, by the by, get an idea of just how feckless the so-called international community at large really is in circumstances like the one going on in Syria by the outrageous amount of attention given in recent days to whether to extend the Annan mission or not. That was the pretext, of course, for the introduction of this most recent resolution to begin with. That is what the otherwise serious men and women have been doing in New York, at Turtle Bay, for days and days now. The leader of this observer contingent in Syria, General Robert Mood, let it be known the other day that he was leaving the country anyway. He, at least, is under no illusion about the total irrelevance of UN efforts in Syria. The UN observer mission in Syria is about as relevant to the outcome there as half a dozen disorganized nine-year olds would be in the middle of an NFL game. What the rest of these supposed grown-ups at the United Nations think they are doing with their time I really do not care to know.
Finally for now, I want to make special note of the statement made yesterday by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The Secretary said that things in Syria are now “spinning out of control.” He may be proven right, in one limited sense I will come to in a moment. But taken at face value, this is a very strange remark when you think about it. Things have been out of control in Syria for quite a while now—long enough for probably 20,000 people, mostly unarmed civilians, to be murdered by their own government. The country is convulsed by what can only be called a civil war. Until the strategic assassinations in Damascus, it was a toss-up who would win this contest and how long it would take. Most observers agree, I think, that yesterday’s events presage a much quicker resolution, even if the level of violence accelerates sharply in the immediate future (as seems quite likely, and as it probably already has). It would therefore be more accurate, it seems to me, to say that those events promise rather the opposite of a spiraling out of control; they may well be a harbinger of an eventual new order, a new form of control, a new and possibly better normal in Syria.
What is the “limited sense” I alluded to just above? Most casual observers probably think that if the opposition forces Assad from power and he either escapes the country or, more graphically, is captured and executed, then the civil war will stop, the blood will cease flowing, and the business of putting together a new arrangement can begin in a relatively placid security environment. Maybe that will be true, but I doubt it. Even now, as I write, I would not at all be surprised if a number of senior Alawi figures are moving people and assets out of Damascus and back to Latakia, even to the Assad family hearth in the town of Qardaha. Why would they do that? Because that is where, they suppose, they would have to make a last stand. Latakia and Qardaha are thus roughly equivalent to Bani Walid in Libya.
Could the Alawis really hold out in Latakia for long after having lost Damascus? Could they roil the entire country from that base? With surreptitious help from some Iranians, yes, they probably could, for quite some time. Certainly if gangs of armed Sunnis seeking revenge for four decades of mistreatment head their way, they are going to fight back as best they can. Large numbers of Alawis have been in the military and Interior Ministry employ for years, and they know how to mete out violence with the best of them. Think of these possibly soon-to-be retired military and intelligence types as very roughly equivalent to the Iraqi Army and Baath Party elements that L. Paul Bremer so foolishly pushed into insurgency, and you will see what I mean. If Syrian chemical weapons are on the move, as some reports have indicated, five will get you ten that Latakia is where most of them are headed. No, a dramatic departure of Assad from Damascus does not ensure a permissive environment for creative transitional politics in Syria. Rather, it may just introduce a new phase of the civil war. Let American planners, please, beware.